#79: The Need for the Public Understanding of Humanities and Social Science Theory

Words are easy. They are not formulas. You should just be able to read them and understand them instantly. Or so it goes.

We seemingly are living in a time where all the things talked about in the humanities and the social sciences in the recent decades are finally coming to have their day in the public consciousness. Words like “race”, “gender”, (not “class”, that is not of interest ever, really), “narrative,” “history,” “construction,” “capitalism,” “discourse,” “inequality,” “equity” etc. are thrown around with ease that you would think the entire world had just taken advanced theory graduate classes.

But of course, this is not the case. What has happened is that some of these terms – completely taken out of their “habitat”, their historical and philosophical context, have been unleashed as memes into the wild, devoid of their caveats, conditions, footnotes and complications – devoid of all things that make up the equivalent of a mathematical formula.

The perception that the “talking” and “writing” sciences should just be understandable “as is” appears to have made the rounds, and any complexity is denied as it would be deemed to just make this new pseudo-discourse boring, take all the fun out of it, and the possibility to monetize the outcry.

If you have been wondering, should you have been reading anything on this blog so far, what it is that I am actually doing, then you are not alone. It took me, myself and I an entirety of 23 years to comprehend what I have been on about on my blog and in my research. My real interest in this format seems to be the Public Understanding of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

I am trying not to be too pedantic, to have a bit of fun, to not be too dogmatic, to never be mean, and to always be open to new ideas.

Speaking of idea, isn’t that a difficult term? Ah, but I just promised to not be too pedantic, so there’s that for now…

#73: The Destruction of Creativity through “Social” Media

There used to be a magical time. You will remember it if you remember using MS Internet Explorer version 2 and above, Netscape Navigator 3 and the mighty Netscape 4 (Communicator). Search Engines (AltaVista, Lycos, Metacrawler, etc.) and Catalogues (Yahoo!) were two different things. Inktomi was not just an allusion to the Lakota spider-trickster (the original spiderman?) but the gold standard in search technology. Google was a nerdy new thing whispered about by tech-mages to their students (and still believed “don’t be evil”). Modems limited your internet speed, and if you had a chance to sit at a university computer, you hit the mother lode with terms of connection speed, and even a Windows NT machine!

I have a “bio-birthday” and a “web” birthday: on January 8, 1998, I built myself an awkward looking home at GeoCities’. This was the place to be, when GeoCities was not yet destroyed by yahoos who did not understand it. There were “neighborhoods”, I chose the sci-fi neighborhood (“Area 51”), and “Station”. Back then, it was clear that the internet was built for two things: Star Trek and pornography. I was definitely not doing the latter, thus Star Trek it would be. You can see early design versions of my site at my Layout History pages.

You had to learn how to do HTML, CSS, make graphics, logos, etc. You had to create your own content, thus you had to write, take pictures (analog!), scan them, reduce their filesize, create thumbnails, etc. Then, in a mad dash, a noisy modem session would be needed to upload the whole shebang to the respective FTP server. To find likeminded people, you joined a webring.

Web sites were wild areas for experimentation, and everyone who made one had to learn autodidactically, and had fun doing it. This was your own space, and it would be as good as your skills (and sense for layout and content) would be. You built your own identity. Your web site was an achievement, and once you felt it was good enough to accompany for longer, and once you found money to pay for it, it was time to get real. You dealt with InterNIC directly for your domain name, and would eventually get real server space.

The point is, you needed to learn, you developed skills, you learned about the nitty-gritty of the web. These were transferrable skills. You got to play, create something for yourself, and interact with like-minded people – who would actually get to e-mail you.

You still can do all these things, and some of them work better now. But there are monsters out there sucking all the creative energy out of the room in order to display shadows of it in their own space. MySpace provided a portal that still allowed for some wackiness to survive let people personalize the interface a bit more, but it was also the first step into a corporate world. Eventually, Facebook and all the rest have created a world where their own portal basically was supposed to encompass the internet. Now we also have apps that are graveyards for photos, short videos, shameless self-promotion, all to create ad revenue.

Your own web site works for you; but to Facebook (and services like it, wrongly called “social” media), you are the drone stuck in the matrix giving it life. You are completely dependent on social media platforms and their designs, their rules, their monetization. No skills need to be required, nothing needs to be learned that’s transferrable, other than how to use a stupid (in the sense of limited purpose) app on a phone. You cannot easily control your content, how it displays, how it will be read, and you engage with others in a monetizable manner where each of our “likes” feeds an algorithm to give you more of the same.

This is the end of creativity, or rather, it is the seduction of easiness that allows for the end of creativity. You can still get your own web site. Or even a blog (not the same, but better than social media). But most won’t, because we humans are all creatures of convenience nowadays, and why make the effort when minimal mock-effort is enough?

Why give up a personal space on the web that is really yours to shape for the simulacrum or rather poor parody of such a possibility on so-called social media?

#68: We Do Not Need Enemies

We are seeing increasing tension in the world again. There were a few years, namely the 1990s, when the world seemed to be growing more closely together, overcoming differences and seeking understanding over division (with a few painful exceptions). Then, 9/11 happened, which brought new wars. The transatlantic alliance was put under strain, globalization brought out new players, strengthened older ones, and a slow shift began to recalibrate the power dynamics on a planet that in its current path towards global climate change could need cooperation more than antagonism. The West appears more fractured than ever in the last decades, China’s dictatorship is making gains, Russia, Turkey, Iran, India and Pakistan are flexing their muscles, and only in the Middle East are some signs of hope (how ironic!).

While a global pandemic is still out of control, and other challenges await, we are entertaining the luxury of having arch-enemies again. This is not how civilizations survive, it is how they end.

I grew up under Soviet rule. I have little patience for theoretical discussions over the value of real-existing socialism or communism. As a German, I deeply loathe and oppose any form of fascism and national socialism. There is no value in extremism – on either side, if those are even sides. Between the extermination camps and the killing fields, I fail to see the difference. But these were ideologies run amuck, and people and countries fell succumbed to their spell. Our fight is with the kind of ideas that want to radically remake the world politically, exert absolute power, and create the new man, to cast out the old in the process, mercilessly. But our enemy is not the people themselves, neither the countries.

I may have had to learn Russian at grade 5, which was the language of our Soviet occupiers. The Soviets, as needs mentioning, had a hand in defeating National Socialism together with the West, and in liberating the Germans from a toxic idea, sadly, enabling another toxic idea, but that does not take away from the Soviet sacrifices made to rid the world of Hitler and his ilk. The Soviet Union as an idea and organization also oppressed its people, and their ideas. When learning Russian, I learned about the people and their culture, and I know that without Russian music, I would feel majorly deprived.

We need to see people first, systems second. If we don’t, we enter the domain of arch-enemies and perpetual wars. France and Germany were enemies for so long that it seemed genetic almost, but European integration changed this unhealthy and deadly dynamic completely. This brings hope also to Israel and the Arab world, to Cyprus and Greece, to Armenia and Azerbaijan, to the Congo, to Kashmir, etc. Peace is possible, but it has to be made with great effort. It needs cooperation, shared institutional frameworks, and most of all, a shared conviction that your benefit will be mine also.

Surely, differences and problems need to be addressed. Dictatorships are wrong because they never work in the long run, as they never can allow the development of the full potential of their peoples. For that, it would need absolute free speech and free criticism, and dictatorships are intolerant of that. Once we can make clear that we want peace and cooperation, above all, and that – while we are prepared for war – we will never seek it unless in defense, and that we take a genuine and sincere interest in helping each other face the challenges of today and tomorrow, then things can change.

I have had students and colleagues from all continents, from dozens upon dozens of countries, from every race, color, gender and creed imaginable. We are all the same. I know that sounds preachy, hippie-esque, too optimistic, whatever. It has to be. Hope starts inside, and once we recognize each other, their face, their value, their humanity, their being alive, we can see that what divides us can be overcome. Read Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, and Martin Buber, I and Thou.

These days, any of our outdated conceptions of who an enemy is will stand in the way of saving the best parts of our way of life, saving our planet’s living beings, and ourselves. The stakes are high. We are also seeing new opportunities out there. A galaxy with more planets than ever thought possible. Sky’s the limit.

Maybe I have just watched too much Stargate. I just finished re-watching an episode dealing with Americans and Russians working together on interplanetary travel. It is a show from the 1990s. We could dream it then, and we should be dreaming it now.

Happy New Year!

#67: This Perfect Virus Exploits Our Weaknesses

“Frightened people. Give me a Dalek any day.”
– The 11th Doctor, in N7.03 “A Town Called Mercy”

2020 is the perfect year for getting an education on reality. We are learning a lot about human nature, different cultures, statistics, as well as biology these days. We should be thankful that things are finally revealed that were apparently unclear to some, mainly those with too optimistic a view on humanity.

This is the year that shows us how we really are. I wrote earlier about how this crisis has revealed to us certain lessons about politics and policy that we probably needed to hear. This is more personal.

We are learning that the virus knows us very well. It knows that we are relational people, and that while some of us, including yours truly, may be able to isolate themselves physically while embracing virtual connections, many if not most among us need physical connections and presence much more than I, personally, would ever have thought before. I am fine with distance; I like closeness too, but do not really need it urgently. Maybe it helps to be happily married to not need other people; but not everybody can ever be that lucky, I realize.

We are learning that we are not good at math, especially probabilities, statistics, exponential growth, etc. We are also not good with hedging risks, and respecting risks in the first place.

We are not patient. It is clear that the Coronavirus crisis will take quite some time still to be settled, if at all. We need to adjust our expectations, curb our desires, hopes, enthusiasms, and – for now, as much as possible, a determined focus on the survival of most of us, young and old.

We are not by nature bad people, but when scared, rationality can leave us quickly and our fear may overcompensate in strange ways. After many hours of trying to understand Covid Denialism in its many forms, I have come to believe that it is just another stress reaction to the crisis, fueled by the fear of losing normality.

I have known of people who passed away, seen people changing beyond recognition, people’s personalities changing, and not for the better. This is the time of friendships and relationships in general stuck in a deep and excruciating stress test that some may not survive, for a variety of reasons.

We are relational beings, and will need to find out how such relationships can survive. The virus is poisoning our social fabric and making us question our lives, our reality, even the existence of the virus itself. We are distracted, we are making mistakes, which is what the virus “wants”.

Easy does it. Be appreciative of the friends you do have. Take care of your relationships with others, cherish the people in your life, now more than ever. They may not listen now, but don’t close your heart. Disagreement on a specific issue should never undo personal attachment and commitment to each other as fellow travelers in this, as it now appears again, valley of darkness…

#65: Sine Ira et Studio: The Strength of Dispassionate Criticism

It is easy to get caught up in the issues of the day. There is always some grave injustice somewhere, always some issues that endanger human life, other life on earth, even the planet herself. It is easy, and very compelling, to translate the emotions we all have about deeply important issues into a language reflecting this emotionality. How else could we speak about it? How could we possibly stay calm in the face of a hurricane threatening the very existence of some or all of us?

There has been the old suggestion to approach such issues without ire and agitation – sine ira et studio. This does not mean that emotionality, agitation, ire even would not be justified; on the contrary. But we need to ask us: What are we trying to achieve? Are we aiming for an end to injustice? Are we trying to convert people to our cause? Are we asking people to change their mind?

Human beings – most animals probably – are prideful. Any criticism that aims to be heard would be wise to be adapted to such a situation. There would not be such a saying if it were easy; it is not. But it works, it is effective, it allows for the respective other to abandon their position eventually with honor. If you respect other people – in spite of their positions – you allow them to respect you in turn, and this opens the path to a necessary conversation and honest exchange in which justice can finally prevail. Convincing others is a skill, it takes time, patience, respect, empathy, even love.

Love towards those that you perceive to have wronged you is an outrageous demand, of course. Socrates was killed for it, so were Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King jr, and so many others. We need to accept who people are, help them accept themselves in their truth, and help them see the consequences of their actions. As it also says, hate the sin, not the sinner. If we believe in social justice, this includes the belief – necessarily so – that each and every human being is precious – whether perpetrator, victim, or neutral party – because life itself is precious and deserves to be treated with dignity.

Ire and rage are easy, studious agitation comes naturally; neither creates sustainable peace. Only if we move beyond feeling righteous in our moral crusade will we be able to see that to change hearts and minds, we need to recognize that even our opponent in a specific matter has both a heart and a mind, no matter how we may resist that notion. The more dispassionate our stance can be (in spite of our emotions within) the better we will face whatever is out there. Stoicism – whether you know it through Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Star Trek‘s Spock – is not an instruction to not have feelings. It is an instruction to utilize your feelings in a manner that they will not stand in the way of solving the problems you need to solve. Sine ira et studio.